07.21.20

Statement On The Global Response To COVID-19

Mr. LEAHY.  I have spoken many times about the need for another COVID-19 supplemental.  The frightening trajectory of this virus, and the terrible human suffering, loss, and economic devastation it is causing families, businesses, and public services in every state and municipality in this country, have greatly accentuated the urgency of that need. 

As the coronavirus continues to outpace the White House’s appallingly belated, incompetent, inadequate, and incoherent efforts to contain it, the number of Americans becoming sick and dying continues to rise. 

As of yesterday, the virus has infected more than 3.8 million Americans and has killed more than 143,000. 

Those are not numbers.  They are people.  Thirty thousand more Americans have been killed by this virus in the past five months than died in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. 

The President’s response?  That the virus will “soon just go away”.  After dismissing the virus as nothing to worry about and predicting that the U.S. economy would come “roaring back” in June, our self-proclaimed “war time President” has for all intents and purposes left the battlefield. 

After months of belittling those who wear masks to protect themselves and others, almost nothing he has said about this pandemic has turned out to be accurate or helpful.

At this point, his priority appears to be keeping the confederate flag flying and honoring those who fought to defend slavery and destroy the Union.  That is appalling, even for this divisive President. 

The virus’ toll in this country is staggering, and unlike many countries where governments quickly put in place effective controls and the virus has receded and economies have largely reopened, here it is getting worse. 

In many states, infection and death rates are surpassing what they were in March, hospitals are struggling to cope without enough supplies, and we still have no national strategy to contain it.

But we also need to be aware of what the virus is doing in other parts of the world, because that will determine how long it will take to defeat this pandemic, and how long before life returns to normal in our own country.  This too has been all but ignored by the White House.    

Last week, the World Health Organization – which the White House blames for favoring China at the same time President Trump was praising Xi Jinping for China’s response to the virus – reported more than 14 million confirmed infections and more than 600,000 deaths worldwide.  The virus has spread to 216 countries and territories – in effect, the entire world.   

Like Texas, Florida, Arizona, Alaska, and many other states in this country, many countries – especially in Latin America and Africa – continue to see a rapid increase in the number of infections and deaths.  Others that had successfully suppressed the first wave of infections, are now seeing a second wave as they try to reopen their economies.

As the rate of infections steadily increases and more and more people become sick around the world, let’s remember that millions of Americans are studying, working, and serving overseas.

And our borders are not closed.  Tens of thousands of people are traveling to the United States for the same purposes, including from countries that have been severely impacted by the virus. 

Countries with the most advanced health care systems in the world are struggling to cope with the flood of sick people.  As bad as that is, the situation is far worse in developing countries, where billions of people have no access to quality medical services or even safe water and sanitation. 

Their governments have minimal ability to stop the spread of the virus or to shore up their failing economies.   Without aid from the United States and other donors, the virus will spread out of control.  In fact, that is already happening in this hemisphere.

There are tens of millions of refugees living in crowded camps or otherwise displaced in Jordan, Greece, Colombia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, and other countries.  The spread of the virus within these destitute populations will be extremely difficult to control. 

The virus is also weakening efforts against other public health threats.  UNICEF warns that the diversion of resources in many developing countries away from existing programs in order to fight the virus could result in 1.2 million additional deaths among children under five this year alone. 

Disruptions in supply chains, personnel, transport, and other factors caused by COVID-19 are projected to result in millions of additional deaths from AIDS, TB, and malaria in 2020 and 2021.

According to USAID, the World Food Programme (WFP), The Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), the Global Fund, and other public health and humanitarian organizations, COVID-related needs around the world are spiking “in every area” and USAID says that whatever amount of resources the Congress provides “will not be enough”.  

They describe “massive gaps” in meeting what they foresee as a “tidal wave of need” in the making, at the same time that they and others are trying to stop the backsliding in other infectious disease programs. 

The Global Fund will be out of money to fight COVID-19 and mitigate the damage to their HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria programs at the end of this month.  Those programs will end in a matter of days unless they receive additional funds. 

Polio could quickly spread, infecting thousands of children and wiping out decades of work and billions of dollars invested to eliminate it.

According to WFP, if current trends continue, 270 million people will be without adequate food by the end of this year, an increase of 150 million due to the pandemic alone.

David Beasley, head of WFP, warned that “[u]ntil the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos. Without it, we could see increased social unrest and protests, a rise in migration, deepening conflict and widespread under-nutrition among populations that were previously immune from hunger.”  

The U.S. Food for Peace Program, known as “P.L. 480 - Title II”, has been a life-saver for over 60 years.  More than three billion people in 150 countries have received P.L. 480 food aid. 

This program is absolutely vital to the COVID-19 response.  As countries restrict international travel to slow the spread of the virus, it is disrupting the transport and movement of food. 

As the economies of these countries contract, the purchasing power of individuals is dwindling.  The United Nations and USAID forecast an increasing likelihood of mass hunger and famine, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.    

WFP is undertaking the biggest humanitarian response in its history.  According to David Beasley, “[t]his unprecedented crisis requires an unprecedented response. If we do not respond rapidly and effectively to this viral threat, the outcome will be measured in an unconscionable loss of life, and efforts to roll back the tide of hunger will be undone.”

In the United States, the agriculture economy is continuing to suffer.  Not only have the Trump trade wars hurt our farmers, the pandemic has accelerated their decline.  Additional funding for P.L. 480 would help address immediate global hunger needs, while also supporting America’s farm community suffering from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.        

The United Nations believes the number of COVID-19 infections is “massively under-reported”, and is running out of funds to support the hundreds of passenger and cargo flights carrying international aid workers, food, and medical supplies.  Their efforts are also threatened by the fact that many health and humanitarian workers are getting sick. 

All of this requires large infusions of money, and USAID and the UN both say that United States leadership is crucial to obtaining contributions from other donors.  The situation is exacerbated by the fact that private donations have fallen sharply due to the precipitous economic decline caused by COVID-19. 

It is widely understood – at least everywhere except inside the White House – that the less prepared we and other countries are for what lies ahead the worse it will be for them and for us. 

This is not a problem that will be solved by an “America First” policy.  Or by building a wall.  Or by blaming others.

Americans cannot safely resume normal international travel and commerce without a successful global strategy to sustainably reduce the number and rate of infections.  As long as the virus is spreading in this hemisphere and beyond, Americans will continue to become infected and die and the U.S. economy will suffer. 

The amount appropriated for the international response to the virus in previous COVID-19 supplementals totals $2.4 billion, including less than $1 billion for food and other humanitarian aid.  That is less than one-half of one percent of the sum total of those emergency supplementals. 

After a slow start, USAID and the State Department are moving quickly to obligate emergency COVID-19 funds, with nearly all of the humanitarian aid having already been obligated or planned for specific purposes, creating an urgent need for additional resources.

Today’s appeals from just the Global Fund, WFP, and GAVI total $10 billion, and that doesn’t include the needs of agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, or our own programs administered by USAID and the State Department. 

It also assumes nothing from the United States for WHO, and regional WHO affiliates, which have been scapegoated by the Trump Administration to detract from its own failures, but are playing an indispensable role around the world in fighting COVID-19 and countless other public health threats.

Several billion dollars are needed just for the cost of purchasing and distributing billions of doses of a coronavirus vaccine as soon as one is available, in which GAVI will play a central role.  The distribution will be immensely difficult and costly, and we have to be prepared as soon as a vaccine is proven to be safe and effective. 

The State Department will also need additional resources to continue providing vital consular services to Americans overseas.  The dramatic decrease in passport and visa processing has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue to support those services, and if not replenished they will soon have to furlough personnel.

The longer Congress delays, the more costly – in lives and dollars – an effective international response to COVID-19 becomes.  Controlling the outbreak here at home is ultimately a lost cause if we do not act aggressively to assist other countries in the global fight against this pandemic.  

Our aid will also help to preserve long-term U.S. investments in global health, economic development, and security.  Over the past 30 years those investments have produced significant progress in reducing poverty and infant mortality, expanding access to education especially for girls, and on many other human welfare indicators. 

These gains are now being reversed due to COVID-19, and the predictable consequences will be more poverty, more extremism, more instability and conflict, and more refugees seeking jobs and safety.

President Trump has shown that he cannot and will not be the leader we need at this critical time.  It is up to Congress.  The longer we delay, the more difficult and costly it will be to defeat this virus. 

On July 10, the House Appropriations Committee marked up its fiscal year 2021 bill for the Department of State and Foreign Operations, which includes $10 billion in emergency funding for the international response to COVID-19.  That is a good start, but it is too little.  The virus is racing around the world and the costs of stopping it are increasing every day.

I hope the proposal about to be unveiled by the Majority Leader includes the necessary funds for the international response.  Because, to repeat, controlling the outbreak here at home is ultimately a lost cause if we do not act aggressively to assist other countries against this pandemic. 

I believe Senator Graham and I are in agreement about the need for strong United States leadership at this critical time.  I will be making my own recommendation to the other members of the Appropriations Committee for the necessary funding to combat the virus overseas, and I urge other Senators to support it.

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